Getting into Harvard: Two cheers for American higher education

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Wall Street Journal

This is the time of year when colleges and universities decide on the Class of 2010. It's also when students and parents are in full-throated gripe about the admissions lottery, the opaque system by which high school seniors are accepted or rejected.

We don't pretend to understand all of the mysteries of this ultimately arbitrary process. But for all of its imperfections -- witness the former Taliban spokesman who won a coveted slot at Yale, or the recent SAT scoring screw-up -- on the whole the college-admissions process does a good job of matching students and schools in what continues to be the best system of higher education in the world. And it even lets us say something good for a change about Harvard -- and Yale too.

Cynics will note that the way to get into elite universities is to be a minority, the child of an alumnus, have a 4.0 GPA and perfect SAT scores, or be a star quarterback or piccolo player. It certainly doesn't hurt to come from a geographically "diverse" place such as Wyoming. And, oh, did we mention that it would help if junior spent last summer scaling Mount Everest or writing a novel? Diversity is a much-maligned word these days -- and for good reason when it is used as justification for racial preferences -- but it is also one of the strengths of U.S. colleges. Unlike virtually everywhere else in the world, applicants to U.S. universities aren't usually selected by a set of fixed academic criteria. Most foreign universities couldn't care less about students' extracurricular activities or whether their parents wore the old school tie.

In Japan, entrance exams are everything. All the University of Tokyo cares about is how a kid scores on a test he has spent four years cramming for. European universities show somewhat more flexibility, but if you haven't followed an approved course of study in high school -- to which students are tracked at the age of 10 or 12 -- you can pretty much forget about college.

By contrast, U.S. higher education is open to everyone who earns a high school diploma. More than 60 percent of graduating high school seniors go directly to college, according to the U.S. Census, and many more go after working for a time. Some 37 percent of college students are age 25 or older, usually attending school part-time. Those who don't enroll in a four-year institution can attend the many first-rate community colleges, which do so much to make up for the sorry state of K-12 public schools.

This rush to college is surely related to the astonishing returns our society puts on higher education. (See the nearby table.) A worker with a college degree earns almost twice as much as someone with a high school diploma; add an advanced degree and the gap is wider. Census data also show that college graduates tend to live longer, healthier lives.

This education premium is also the reason parents and students are willing to spend or borrow huge sums for college degrees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average cost of tuition, room and board at a four-year private college is $31,051, and $10,660 at a public university. New York University -- voted the nation's "dream college" in one poll of teens -- charges $43,000. Harvard costs a mere $38,000.

The reason for this college price inflation is a separate subject, related in part to government subsidies. But -- amazing to those who don't grasp how the U.S. system works -- college remains within the reach of the poor and middle class. Elite schools pride themselves on being able to provide financial aid to every student who can't afford to pay. Less well-endowed private colleges have scholarships, not to mention the grants handed out every year by business and charities. The College Board's Web site provides information on $2.8 billion in scholarships and awards.

Unlike grades K-12, government aid for college is generally voucherized, with Pell grants and the like going to students for use at the public or private school of their choice. As recently as the 1950s, the Ivy League was a place of economic and social privilege. There were often not-so-secret quotas for Jews and Catholics, and minorities had little or no chance of entering. Now their student bodies are nearly as broad as the country itself -- and certainly more so than their faculties, which thanks to tenure and intellectual conformity aren't diverse at all.

Most of the 23,000 students who applied for one of 1,650 spots in Harvard's next freshman class will be disappointed when decisions are announced on Thursday. But all will find a place in another school and, with motivation and hard work, will go on to realize their potential and make the country a better place.


Stay in School

Average income by education level

Some high school$18,734
High school diploma$27,915
College degree$51,206
Advanced degree$74,602

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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